Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Everybody's Fine

"But the Film? N'yeah, Not So Much!"

Widower Frank Goode (Robert De Niro) has a big family reunion planned when all the kids at the last minute cancel. Assuming, as do we, that they're just avoiding seeing "the old man," he packs his bags, his keys and his pills, and buses and trains across the country to drop in, unannounced, on each and every one of them, with a mystery note. He doesn't fly, you see, as he's suffering from pulmonary fibrosis, which he's acquired from his job of weather-coating phone-cable with PCB's. It is the very nature of this movie to let no plot-detail go unutilized in this bubble-world of a movie, so, of course, that becomes important later.

When visiting each kid, he realizes that they're leading somewhat less successful lives than they and his late wife had led him to believe. And he's determined to get everybody back together for a big get-together at Christmas.

It sounds like the excellent Christmas "ABC Movie of the Week," "
The Gathering," in which a dying Edward Asner attempts to have one last Christmas with all his estranged adult kids before he goes to the Great Gift Return in the Sky. But this is actually based on an Italian film by "Cinema Paradiso" director Giuseppe Tornatore called "Stanno Tutti Bene" (or "Everybody's Fine") and de-cultured, simplified, sweetened and topped by an ineffectual Paul McCartney song by Kirk Jones (who made "Waking Ned Devine" and "Nanny McPhee" and should know better).

I haven't seen the original (shame on me,
I loved "Paradiso"), but I know it wasn't as slick and as simple-minded as this version. For example, it hinges on the false premise that nobody ever talks in this family...ever. The entire movie could have been solved in an hour by Dr. Phil. Everybody keeps secrets, sure. But usually not very well. How long did these kids think they could keep their charades going, especially with the major life-changes they entail? The machinations that daughter Rosie (Drew Barrymore) has to go through are herculean and more than a little uncredible for what she's hiding, and also speak of a lack of feeling that the rest of her performance belies. Added to that, the plot device of inflating your importance to your parents has been used in every sit-com ever conceived—but pulling it off on an elaborate movie budget tends to make the concept explode like shrapnel. It's especially frustrating, after seeing a mature film for adults like "Up in the Air" to see froth like this, designed for the eye-candy-and-blue-hair crowd, where no opportunity for closure goes unachieved with an unsubtle slam.

The cast in uniformly great, howver. De Niro (man, he looks plasticized in that poster—they airbrushed out all his wrinkles to attract a younger crowd) schlumpfs around the country, asking, ironically, "Are you not talking to ME?" and still manages to find simple, interesting ways to be "a joe." The kids are played by Barrymore,
Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell*, who all do fine jobs given the paucity of material, though Rockwell looks particularly frustrated with his role.

Who could blame him? This isn't a film. It's a "project," gussied up with an all-star cast of available talent who have nothing in common other than they wanted to work with De Niro; a constuct that looks good on the surface, but has no underlying thought to it that would make it legitimate in its own right, and plausible as a story. It's "
Meet the Fockers" done as drama, a collection of parts that don't fit for a coherent film, much less as a representation of real life. Everybody involved should be sentenced to a year of working in theater where they might stumble on some actual characters to play and thoughts to express. Their aspirations are too low, and need to be adjusted.

"Everybody's Fine" is a Cable-watcher, probably on "Lifetime."

* That's another thing: there's no way
De Niro could have had these three kids without marrying three different wives. Nobody looks like they belong in the same family. It looked good on paper on the Miramax ledger-sheet, I'm sure, but it looks like sham on the screen.

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